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The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen

Let’s see: this year we’ve had a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennets’ maid and a modern rewrite of Sense and Sensibility. This year also saw the release of a film of Shannon Hale’s Austenland (the sequel of which, by the way, this blog reviewed).

And today we have yet another take on Jane Austen, this time entering directly into the world of Jane herself, rather than her characters. Like Longbourn, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen takes as its protagonist a member of the lower class–in this case the governess of Jane’s favorite niece. But unlike Longbourn‘s Sarah, Anne Sharp has considerable opportunity to intermix with the ruling class, even becoming friends, and daring to hope to something more than friends.

Based on a number of true facts–Anne Sharp really was a governess for the Austen’s, Jane’s hair really was tested and found to have extraordinarily high levels of arsenic–this is a charming take on Austeniana, the irreverence of which Jane herself would probably quite enjoy.

ASHFORD, Lindsay. The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen. 432p. Sourcebooks Landmark. 2013. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781402282126. LC 2013010791.

Adult/High School–The title promises a mystery–the murder of Jane Austen, no less–and Ashford does eventually follow through, but the bulk of this wonderful historical novel is given over to a touchingly rendered portrait of Anne Sharp, the onetime governess of Jane’s favorite niece. Anne and Jane develop a friendship, which Anne, at least, hopes can be something more. Together they probe some of the Austen family secrets, centered on the possible adulterous affair between Jane’s brother Henry and his sister-in-law Elizabeth–who happens to be Anne’ employer. When the novel finally turns to the mysterious death of Jane–and, in truth, a lock of Austen’s hair was found to be unusually high in arsenic–the mystery itself is never greatly in doubt, but it gives an excuse for a well-defined turn in Anne’s psychology that adds much depth to her character. As for that mystery, it all turns on which Austen had the most to gain from Jane’s death–and readers can’t help but be charmed by Ashford’s irreverent sullying of the reputations of just about every member of the clan, only Jane excluded. Ashford’s characterizations would do Austen proud–crisp and biting, but never less than fully three-dimensional. Meanwhile her gritty, workingwoman’s perspective on Regency England leaves no doubt that this book is set in the real world, and not in one of Jane’s novels.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark